Too many details get in the way of Glensheen’s fun at History Theatre


Glensheen, the new musical about the infamous murders in a Duluth mansion, offers a lot to love — and some things to hate.

The premiere features some great songs and terrific performances. It also has a muddled story that overstuffs the action with so many stray details that we lose sight of what's important: the perpetrators and the victims.

In 1977, Elisabeth Congdon and her nurse Velma Pietila were murdered. Someone broke into the mansion, suffocated the elderly heiress, and killed the nurse on the stairs with a candlestick.

Police honed in on Roger Caldwell, the husband of one of Congdon's adopted daughters, Marjorie. She'd been cut off from the family trust. Roger, the perfect stooge, was tried and convicted. And then it got weird.

Marjorie was acquitted after a razzle-dazzle defense picked away at bumbling police work and an all-female jury's sympathies for the defendant. Roger's conviction was also overturned. Before the new trial, he took a deal, confessing to the crimes in exchange for walking free.

The case riveted the state. From the Clue-like murders to the inept cops, it was a ready-made media circus.

Roger and Marjorie came straight out of a Coen brothers' film: a domineering wife and a souse of a husband who never gives up his wife's role in the plot. Jennifer Maren's Marjorie is a master manipulator, twisting everyone about her finger. Dane Stauffer, as Roger, first appears as a cocksure playboy in a pressed suit and no socks. But the character quickly descends into an alcoholic haze where his only joy comes from being with Marjorie.

Stauffer builds sympathy for Roger, especially in his final, lonely days. This comes into focus during his final tune, where the broken character shows his still-simmering love for his long-absent wife, who has since divorced him for a string of new husbands who die under suspicious circumstances.

But while Roger's death marks the emotional end of the story, the musical has five more numbers that slow the pace to a crawl when the show should be at its apex. Even Maren's rock-steady performance can't save it, as her finale, "Torch Song," is just enough out of her range to make the experience emotionally flat.

Chan Poling's score bounces from style to style, yet offers a memorable set of tunes that stick in the ear. While the structure is weak, Jeffrey Hatcher's script offers plenty of macabre humor and some real heart when it circles back to Elisabeth and Velma. Wendy Lehr takes on both roles, and gives the musical highlight of the night with Velma's simple, emotionally affecting tale of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Glensheen has an identity crisis. It wants to be fun — if ghastly. It also wants to acknowledge the real loss and hurt caused by the murders. The muddled results don't work as planned.